[Today: The game changer…]
Every decade or so, an album comes along that represents a before-and-after moment in the history of rock. The closest my generation came to experiencing one before the 1990s was Thriller, which was more of a freak pop culture tsunami – a huge-selling album that didn’t truly affect the way music was made – than a bona fide game changer. But Nirvana’s 1991 album Nevermind really did feel like the beginning of a new chapter in music. Here was a band that channeled The Sex Pistols, The Beatles and Velvet Underground in equal measures, and topped it all off with big, FM-ready guitar licks courtesy of bands like Boston and Aerosmith.
Ever-catchy lead single ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ has rightly been described as a generational anthem. Lead singer Kurt Cobain took the song’s title from a phrase spray-painted on his wall by a friend, but his line “Here we are, now entertain us” captured the demanding boredom of a generation that made common the word “awesome” while refusing to be easily awed. Elsewhere, ‘Come As You Are’ has a creepy bass line that adds to the desperation and bitter irony of Cobain’s lyric “No I swear that I don’t have a gun…”, while ‘Lithium’ uses the loud-soft-loud formula to depict wild mood swings.
Nevermind is filled with raw music that was punk enough for a real charge, yet polished enough for mass consumption. Cobain was a brilliant songwriter who turned his personal pain into disturbing, compelling songs that raised the bar on rock-&-roll authenticity. Lost in the shuffle of his star turn is drummer Dave Grohl, who has since been recognized as the strongest drummer this side of John Bonham by none other than Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. Grohl’s wildman Animal impersonation underscores Cobain’s obtuse, poetic irony (“Sell the kids for food…”) and semi-psychotic rants (see ‘Polly’ and ‘Territorial Pissings’).
Aside from the spark in his music, I wasn’t particularly fond of Kurt Cobain’s public persona. He was far too whiny about success and fame, he married a certified nut, and he let a petty drug habit get the best of him. And yet, pulling Nevermind from the shelf often feels like looking through a box full of pictures of a long dead friend. Sometimes it’s comforting and takes me back to better times, but more often it just rips the scabs off old wounds that are better left alone…
Listen: Smells Like Teen Spirit
Listen: Come As You Are